“The U.S. and Israel Make the Connections for Us”: Anti-Imperialism and Black-Palestinian Solidarity
By Nadine Naber
In the summer of 2014, as activists in Ferguson, Missouri, faced the military-grade weapons of four city and state police departments—tear gas, smoke bombs, stun grenades, and tanks—Gazans were confronting Israel’s heavy artillery shelling, massive use of cannons, mortars, and half-ton to one-ton missiles.1 The canisters fired in both Gaza and Ferguson were U.S.-made.2
Worldwide, activists began making ideological and human connections, especially in Ferguson and Palestine. Ferguson protesters held up signs affirming their solidarity with Palestinians, while Palestinians issued Palestine solidarity statements, including advice on how to deal with tear gas.3 In October 2014, local groups, including the Organization for Black Struggle and the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, with national groups, such as Muslims for Ferguson, the U.S. Palestine Community Network, the Palestine BDS National Committee, the Palestinian Youth Movement, and African Americans for Justice in the Middle East and North Africa organized a weekend of resistance in Ferguson called the “Palestine Contingent to Ferguson” whereby those supporting Palestinian liberation came to stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson.
Also following the summer of 2014, African American delegations to Palestine (or to Lebanon to work with Palestinians), ongoing since the 1970s, became increasingly prominent.4 In early 2015, members of the Dream Defenders (the Florida-based youth movement that formed in the shadows of the killing of Trayvon Martin) and racial justice groups like the Black Youth Project and Black Lives Matter sent a delegation to Palestine. Dream Defender activist Ahmad Abuznaid explained:
The goals were primarily to allow for the group members to experience and see firsthand the occupation, ethnic cleansing and brutality Israel has levied against Palestinians, but also to build real relationships with those on the ground leading the fight for liberation. . . . In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the US and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.5
After months of organizing between Students for Justice in Palestine and the Dream Defenders, the latter passed a resolution to support the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in December 20, 2014.6 Indeed, growing solidarity mounted alongside an escalation in state violence in both places, culminating in the Black for Palestine Statement of August 18, 2015, signed by more than a thousand Black activists, artists, scholars, students, and organizations reaffirming their “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and commitment to the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.”7
To many, these displays of solidarity appear new, prompting questions of what motivates the sense of connection between such seemingly diverse sites. The most common explanation has pointed to the parallel or similar struggles of Black people in the United States and Palestinians. Though separated by space and facing distinct political contexts, Black Americans and Palestinians, it is argued, make natural allies given their shared experiences of oppression. To be sure, this narrative of similar struggle does inspire solidarity, and Black and Palestinian movement activists have been among the most vocal drawing these explicit comparisons. Consider how residents of Ferguson have used the term “occupied” to describe their economically devastated, predominantly Black town run by a predominantly white, racist police force.8 Confronting a row of military-style tactical vehicles, protesters have explicitly evoked the language of similarity: “You gonna shoot us? Is this the Gaza Strip?”9 Also consider Rania Khalek’s reflections on Ferguson in 2014 via the Palestinian-focused website The Electronic Intifada:
The dystopian scenes of paramilitary units in camouflage rampaging through the streets of Ferguson, pointing assault rifles at unarmed residents and launching tear gas into people’s front yards from behind armored personnel carriers (APCs), could easily be mistaken for a Tuesday afternoon in the occupied West Bank.10
Israel’s widespread use of detention and imprisonment against Palestinians evokes the mass incarceration of Black people in the US, including the political imprisonment of our own revolutionaries. . . . U.S. and Israeli officials and media criminalize our existence, portray violence against us as “isolated incidents,” and call our resistance “illegitimate” or “terrorism.”11
In October 2015, Noura Erakat spearheaded a video project highlighting Black Palestinian solidarity, featuring celebrities and activists such as Lauryn Hill, Angela Davis, Danny Glover, Alice Walker, and Rasmea Odeh. Titled “When I See Them, I See Us,” the project in October 2015 declared: “We each struggle against the formidable forces of structural racism” as “two groups of people dealing with completely different historical trajectories, but similarities.”12
Yet understanding Black-Palestinian solidarity has not been univocal, though other narratives have received far less attention. Other activists, in both sites, employ a broader global and historical lens to argue that beyond being merely similar, Black Americans and Palestinians are, in fact, fighting a common enemy. According to Robin Kelly, many Black activists conceptualize their struggle beyond a [U.S.] nation-based framework of racial justice:
The Dream Defenders, like some of the activists in Ferguson, are actually, I would dare say, radical organizations—meaning that they don’t see the problem as simply racial discrimination. They see it as structural inequality, they see it is an issue of global power, they see it as an issue of decolonization.13
Among the conjoined forces of global power that structure Black and Palestinian oppression (in different ways and to different degrees) are the U.S.-Israeli alliance; U.S.-led empire building, militarism, and war; neoliberal economics; and white supremacy. Dream Defender organizer Cherrell Brown argues, “Our [Black and Palestinians’] oppressors are literally collaborating together, learning from one another—and as oppressed people we have to do the same.”14 From this perspective, African Americans and Palestinians should look to one another not because their struggles share similarities, but because their struggles are conjoined—and have been so for some time. There is a growing recognition among activists in both sites that Black people and Palestinians have been hailed, in different ways and forms, into the violence and brutality of global power structures, and we share a common enemy—even as that enemy works through different logics in different locations.
The internationalist understanding within current Black solidarity with Palestine continues the legacy of 1960s radicalism.15 The political understanding of the 1960s—which has its roots, in turn, in the 1930s—recognizes U.S. Blacks as confronting internal colonialism and thus in solidarity with other colonized peoples, including Black South Africans, struggling against white settler regimes in the context of imperialism.16 Keith Feldman refers to the Black Panther Party’s framing of permanent war, and analyses of U.S. capitalism and racism as internal colonialism, as connected to global struggles around postcolonial nationhood and against neoliberalism. Black struggle in the United States is thus located as sort of Third World within, highlighting the connections between racialized and classed ghettos and prisons in the United States and those struggling against colonialism, white supremacy, and imperialism in other parts of the world.17
While earlier strands of Black radicalism supported the idea of Zionism on the basis of its claim to strive for land and self-determination, by 1967 Black radicals began asserting solidarity with Palestinian people as an oppressed Third World nation, while questioning the image of Israeli vulnerability.18 Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem caused Black activists, like those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to view Palestinian struggles against Israel as similar to other decolonizing movements. Mounting Black solidarity with Palestine during this period was reflected in Black Power’s adoption of pro-Palestine resolutions in 1968, an ad published in the New York Times in 1970 titled “An Appeal by Black Americans Against United States Support of the Zionist Government of Israel,” and the 1972 Black political convention in Gary, Indiana, where nearly every sector of Black political actors, from revolutionary nationalists to elected officials, agreed to a stance (albeit an extremely tense one) in support of self-determination for Palestine.19
Black solidarity with Palestine emerged out of the Cold War context and the neocolonial projects that destroyed anti-imperialist liberation movements in most of Africa and internationally.20 These and other global alliances grew out of the analysis that the Cold War sidetracked liberation movements and processes for most African countries, that liberation movements were being co-opted by military and corporate elites, finance capital, and efforts to control resources and create the new imperialism. Within this internationalist frame, South Africa and Palestine were considered central sites of Western neo-imperialism and, as such, were identified as locations whose struggles were intrinsically connected to all forms of anticolonial critique. Keith Feldman argues that the Black Power movement understood sites and struggles within the United States and abroad as interconnected and relational: “Black Power enunciated an epistemic imperative to clarify and contest the saturation of racial violence endemic to U.S. imperial culture and intensified by the fierce state repression of anticolonial movements in the United States and abroad.”21 Black solidarity with Palestine continued into the 1970s, and though it eventually lost its taken-for granted status as a central component of African American political understanding, it has continued to resonate within activist circles and wherever anti- imperialist sentiment circulates22—providing the foundation for the resurgence of such solidarity today.
Whether understood as separate but similar or fundamentally conjoined, Black-Palestinian struggle and solidarity remain alive today, but in the context of altered and expanded structures of white supremacy, colonization, and empire. The irony is that, to the extent that the connections between these groups faded from view, it is the relentless expansion and intensification of U.S. imperialism that has brought them back into focus again. Since the 1970s, the role of the United States as a sponsor of Israel has multiplied, as have the technologies, strategies, and breadth of U.S. empire—including the massive expansion in policing, militarism, security, and prisons. In the contemporary moment, four developments help elucidate the structures of empire that entangle and connect Blacks and Palestinians, reviving their sense of solidarity today: (1) the increasing militarization of police in the United States; (2) the training of U.S. police in Israel; (3) the growth of the Zionist movement within the United States and its repression of resistance movements; and (4) the removal of key resources for survival from poor communities of color in the United States to fund the U.S. war machine. As Black activist and signatory of the Black for Palestine statement Khury Petersen-Smith puts it, “The U.S. and Israel make the connections for us . . . the same urban police departments that harass, brutalize and murder black folks here train with Israeli law enforcement—who oppress Palestinians. . . . [Meanwhile,] funds for Israeli weapons are resources diverted from black neighborhoods in desperate need.”23
Jonathan Cook, “Is Gaza a Testing Ground for Experimental Weapons?,” The Electronic Intifada, January 13, 2009, https://electronicintifada.net/content/gaza-testing-ground-experimental-weapons/7969.
Alex Kane, “Weapons Fired in Ferguson Come from Companies Supplying
Israel, Bahrain and Egypt,” Mondoweiss, August 19, 2014, http://mondoweiss.net/2014/08/ferguson-companies-supplying/; “‘Less-than-Lethal’Ammunition Makers Profiting Off Unrest from Ferguson to Israel,” RT, August 19, 2014, https://www.rt.com/usa/181428-ammunition-tear-gas-ferguson/.
“About: Black-Palestinian Solidarity,” Black-Palestinian Solidarity, 2016, http://www.blackpalestiniansolidarity.com/about.html. Bassem Masri, “The Fascinating Story of How the Ferguson-Palestine Solidarity Movement Came Together,” Alternet, February 18, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/activism/frontline-ferguson-protester-and-palestinian-american-bassem-masri-how-ferguson2palestine. Robin D. G. Kelley, “Another Freedom Summer,” Journal of Palestine Studies 44, no. 1 (2014): 29–41.
According to Keith Feldman, “There was a flurry of delegations (mostly to
Lebanon to visit PLO and refugee camps) in the summer/fall of 1979/80 . . . the organization, the Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) supported at least one of these trips,” Keith Feldman, personal communication, 2016. See also Alex Lubin’s discussion on Huey Newton’s and Malcolm X’s trips to the region in Geographies of Liberation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Kristian Davis Bailey, “Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter & Ferguson Reps Take Historic Trip to Palestine,” Ebony, January 9, 2015.
Alex Kane, “The Growing Ties between #BlackLivesMatter and Palestine,”
Mondoweiss, January 26, 2015, http://mondoweiss.net/2015/01/between-blacklivesmatter-palestine/.
“About: Black-Palestinian Solidarity,” blackpalestiniansolidarity.com, http://www.blackpalestiniansolidarity.com/about.html; “2015 Black Solidarity Statement
with Palestine,” Black Solidarity with Palestine, 2015, http://www.blackforpalestine.com/read-the-statement.html.
Heike Schotten, “Analysis: Racism and Rhetoric from Ferguson to Palestine,” Ma’an News Agency, January 22, 2015, http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=755659.
Rania Khalek, “Israel-Trained Police ‘occupy’ Missouri after Killing of Black Youth,” The Electronic Intifada, August 15, 2014, https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/
rania-khalek/israel-trained-police-occupy-missouri-after-killing-black-youth.; mattdpearce, week of August 17, 2014, “Cops warn the crowd. The photog’s gas mask comes out. Someone is chanting ‘Gaza Strip.’ #Ferguson,” https://www.instagram.com/p/rn68uHEQUM/.
Khalek, “Israel-Trained Police.”
“2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine.”
Amanda Ghannam, “On Black-Palestinian Solidarity: Can We Dream
Together?,” The Arab American News, January 16, 2015, http://www.arabamericannews.com/en/2015/01/16/on-black-palestinian-solidarity-can-we-dream-together/;
“Press Release,” Black Solidarity with Palestine, October 14, 2015, http://www.blackpalestiniansolidarity.com/release.html.
Kane, “The Growing Ties between Black Lives Matter and Palestine.”
Bailey, “Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter & Ferguson Reps.”
Kelley, “Another Freedom Summer”; See Carl C. Chancellor, “How #Black
LivesMatter Deeply Connects to Black Power Movement,” USA Today, February 1,
2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/02/01/black-lives-matter-black-power-movement/78991894/. Especially note Patrisse Cullors’s discussion.
Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002); Cedric Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine; Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race
and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
Kelley, Freedom Dreams; Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders; Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine.
Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders; Kane, “The Growing Ties between
#BlackLivesMatter and Palestine.”
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “Third World Round-up:
The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge,” SNCC Newsletter 1, no. 2 (July–August 1967): 5–6; Kelley, “Another Freedom Summer.” For an excellent analysis of the SNCC essay, see Keith P. Feldman, “Representing Permanent War: Black Power’s Palestine and the End(s) of Civil Rights,” New Centennial Review 8, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 210–21.
Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine, 60.
Cedric Johnson, personal communication, 2015.
David Palumbo-Liu, “Black Activists Send Clear Message to Palestinians:
‘Now Is the Time for Palestinian Liberation, Just as Now Is the Time for Our Own in the United States,” Salon, August 18, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/18/black_activists_send_clear_message_to_palestinians_now_is_the_time_for_palestinian_liberation_just_as_now_is_the_time_for_our_own_in_the_united_states/.